In this more and more globalised, interconnected world, certain languages are becoming increasingly dominant – English (or a variation of it) seems to be spoken just about everywhere – and ‘minor’ languages with fewer speakers are slowly dying if not already dead and buried.
One of the most remarkable languages to have died away is Nǚshū – a written language only intelligible to women in an area of Hunan Province in South East China. This language was kept secret for hundreds of years and only really came to wider knowledge in the 1980s.About a thousand years ago – give or take – some woman in Hunan (legend has it that it was a Hunanese concubine of the Emperor) developed a written phonetic code for the local Chinese dialect, Xiangnan Tuhua, and this was Nǚshū (literally ‘woman writing’). She did this so that she could communicate privately with her closest female friends, and slowly the language spread between women in her home area.
Back in those days most females did not get taught to read or write (indeed the bulk of the population whether male or female was illiterate). Living by the Confucian ideals of family meant that women had very little freedom, and after marriage – when they had to leave their family and friends to live with the husband’s clan – they were often very isolated and lonely. Nǚshū was passed from generation to generation , woman to woman, girl to girl. The writing was usually done in the form of embroidery on handkerchiefs, pillowcases, fans or in small cloth books which passed between them, and what was written could not be read by men. The writing was so subtle that it could pass as an art form or as a series of ‘scratches’ This sub-culture was the women’s response to a male dominated society.
Every girl would have at least one Sworn sister ( laotong 老同) chosen for them in early childhood, and the girls would support one another during the agonies of having their feet broken and bound, and preparing for the marriage which would eventually be arranged for them. This friendship bond would endure for their entire lives. Sworn sisters, mothers, aunts and other female relatives would write or embroider (using Nǚshū) a book with sentiments of love, friendship, advice and so forth; and this little book, called San Chao Shu 三朝書 would be given to the girl on the third day after her marriage before she went away with her husband to a new life.
Each San Chao Shu would have several blank pages which the bride could use as a journal for recording her feelings about her marriage, children etc. When a woman died her Sworn sister or other women would make sure her Third Day Book and any other Nǚshū items were buried with her or burned. As a result very few pieces have survived, which is one of the reasons the language remained secret for so many centuries.
Most men in the community had absolutely no idea that Nǚshū existed, and the outside world knew nothing of it. The Japanese military suspected there was a code language when they invaded that part of China during the 1930s and intended to suppress it, but because no Chinese men seemed to know about such a language they didn’t do anything further.
In 1949, following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, all children whether male or female started being taught to read and write Mandarin Chinese, and as a result the need for Nǚshū eventually declined.
It was only in the 1960s that the language came to the attention of academics and started to be studied by a few Chinese linguists. What they discovered was unique, the ONLY gender specific language in the world (at least as far as anyone knows).
The wider knowledge of Nǚshū came just in time, as the number of women who could still read and write it fluently was miniscule, had it been any later there would have been no-one still alive to tell them about it.
The last woman who was able to read and write it fluently, Yang Huanyi, died in 2004 aged 98. She had stopped using the language when her Laotong died a few years previously, but was persuaded to start again so that scholars could learn and study the language.
Lisa See, an American novelist of Chinese ancestry, wrote a very interesting novel based around Nǚshū and ‘Sworn sisters‘ entitled: Snow Flower & The Secret Fan – which was then made into a movie.